Unfinished business: Global push to save 11 million children
Toronto/Stockholm/Geneva/New York 12 March 2002 — Almost 11 million children die every year from preventable and treatable causes, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In a call for commitment to saving children’s lives, the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund have convened a Global Consultation on Child and Adolescent Health and Development, 12 –13 March, in Stockholm. During those two days, experts and political leaders from around the world will draw up a strategy to reach the poorest and the youngest.
“Of the eleven million who die, eight million are babies — half of them in the first month of life,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. "These deaths were preventable and treatable, not inevitable.”
The vast majority of these deaths can be prevented, but only with the necessary political will and resources. Pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles, HIV/AIDS, and malnutrition are the main killers. Poverty is an overriding cause. Some 600 million children live on less than US$1 a day. Malnutrition contributes to 60% of all deaths in childhood. Malnutrition and infectious diseases are a deadly duo that preys especially on the young.
A special focus will be on how to save the lives of the millions of newborn babies who die during the first weeks of their lives.
"We now know that about 90 percent of the children that die each year, die at home," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "How children are cared for at home and in their community has a decisive impact on their chances of survival. We need to provide parents and caregivers with essential knowledge and commodities that can save the lives of their children."
The Consultation will also focus on the critical needs for adolescent health and development. Children who survive the early years face additional dangers in adolescence. Every year, almost 1.5 million adolescents die from substance abuse, reproductive ill health, suicide, injuries, and violence. Adolescents also account for approximately 50 percent of all new HIV infections.
Adolescents, families, and communities must participate in the decisions and actions designed to improve their health and development. We need to build stronger connections between young people and adults, and provide young people with the necessary knowledge and skills to help them develop to their full potentials.
"We are failing our children and young people," added Dr Brundtland. “Even when they do survive, many children are still unable to grow and develop to their full potential.”
WHO and UNICEF agree that there is a great need to strengthen health services, but investments must go beyond hospitals and health centres to empowering communities and families.
"In a world where most deaths happen before children reach any health facility, the focus must be on bringing services to people rather than people to services," said Bellamy.
“The good news is that this tragedy can end,” said Dr. Brundtland of the WHO. “We know what works; we need the political will and the resources to do it.”
Progress has been achieved in countries that have shown commitment and invested resources in implementing cost-effective programmes.
Pneumonia can be cured with low-cost antibiotics. Diarrhoea can be treated with oral rehydration salts that cost as low as US$0.33 per treatment, and measles can be prevented with vaccination for as little as US$0.26 per dose. If all children were immunized against measles before the age of one, most of the 600,000 deaths from this disease would be prevented. Malaria prophylaxis, insecticide-treated nets, and access to home treatment could save most of the 900,000 children who die from malaria each year. Improved breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices would slash the death toll of children, as up to 60% of childhood deaths are associated with malnutrition.
"The resources needed to reach every child and adolescent are well within the means of our wealthy world," said Carol Bellamy. "Allocating a tiny fraction of those resources to the needs of children and young people is an unparalleled investment in the health and security of our global community."
The Global Consultation on Children and Adolescent Health and Development will establish a consensus on the best strategies to combat the death toll of children and adolescents. At the UN Special Session on Children, less than two months away, countries will have the opportunity to commit to these strategies.
The Consultation brings together some of the world’s top experts and advocates in the field. Participants include: Queen Silvia of Sweden; Dr. Pascoal Macombi, the Prime Minister of Mozambique; Dr. Ali Mohammed Shein, the Vice President of Tanzania; and Jo Ritzen, Vice President of Human Development at the World Bank.